A Useful Life is a Uruguayan film about cinephilia and, essentially, its pros and cons. Federico Veiroj, who used to work in a Uruguayan cinema, co-wrote and directed the film and, as a result, the film is an evocative portrait of life inside an art cinema and a passionate love song to cinema.
Real life film critic Jorge Jellinek plays middle-aged Jorge, who has been working in the Montevideo Cinematheque for twenty-five years. He has a number of responsibilities, ranging from being in charge of programming, advertising, maintenance, as well as projecting and dubbing the films. Living with his father and without much of a life outside the cinema, Jorge’s fate seems to be bound with that of his cinema.
Unfortunately, the cinema is beset with problems, from a broken-down projector in Screen 2 to financial troubles, such as a continually falling membership, the cinema’s constant money losses and the threat that funding might be pulled unless things improve. As Jorge’s career and, ultimately, his life begins an inevitable slide into ruin, he finds himself increasingly alone and in need of a new preoccupation.
Enter Paola (Paola Venditto), a law teacher at the local university, whom Jorge offers a complimentary ticket when she visits the cinema. Could Jorge begin a tentative romance just as his world is crashing around him?
A Useful Life is a film that is absolutely beset by cinema, peopled with characters that are equally beset by cinema. The actors are all largely non-professional and many are connected with the real-life Montevideo institution, the Cinemateca Uruguaya, which still exists despite the film charting its downfall. In fact, Martínez, the film’s director of the Cinematheque, is played by Manuel Martínez Carril, a former director of that institution in real life. As such, the film almost plays like a documentary, albeit one with a fictional story. In keeping with this, the film charts the minutiae of running an arthouse cinema and film archive. When Jorge reaches for a videocassette off a shelf and takes a basement key out of it, you get the impression that that is where they did used to keep the basement key. The film’s soundscape is full of the typical noises of the independent cinema – the whirr of the projector, the squeak of the soundproof doors and rattle of the chairs. As well as this, the film is very slow-paced and is frequently filmed in close-up, presumably in order to make sure you don’t miss anything.
This is, ultimately, where the problem with the film lies. The film is so in love with the cinema that it seems to think that everything about the cinema is fascinating. We see Jorge wonder around his cinema, attending board meetings, writing up the accounts, and counting the membership numbers. It is all meant to convey the love and dedication that he has for the cinema, but it ends up feeling deadening and obsessive. While it is almost certain that Federico Veiroj may claim that that is exactly the point – that cinephilia is an obsession – his rigorously distanced and coldly ethnographic representation of that love avoids showing the causes for this obsession, or why Jorge, as an individual, is so besotted with cinema. As a result, a long take in which Jorge tries out every chair in a screening room to make sure that they are all in working order comes off as robotic and institutionalised.
It gets more difficult as the second half plays out. Jorge, finding himself without a cinema to go to, instead begins directing a film based on his real life experiences. As a result, the film takes on soundtracks from other films and is now mostly filmed from Jorge’s point of view. In Jorge’s ‘movie’, he finally takes charge of his relationship with Paola. However, the film seems to undercut any sense of triumph by remaining cold and distanced. Worse still, it seems to claim that cinema can be an escape from real life, whether it is played inside your head or not. If escape is deemed to be a positive thing then the film is about as optimistic as the ending of Brazil. Distraction and pacification are, apparently, the solution to all our problems. The film’s claim that cinema might give Jorge the tools he needs to survive in the real world is a dubious one.
This may read as nit picking, but Veiroj has managed to make an odd film, one that is unintentionally depressing. The root of the problem probably lies in his old art movie aesthetic of slow editing and a fascination with dead-time, which is a rather pretentious approach to what is presumably intended to be a light-hearted and cheerful love letter to cinema and cinephilia. By refusing to get inside the head of the protagonist, Veiroj’s film may read well on paper, but ultimately leaves you cold.